Friday, October 6, 2006

America East Conference Preview


The America East was not as good last year as it was two seasons ago, when Vermont dominated the league and Northeastern provided some competition for the Catamounts. Last season, Albany took the title by one game over Binghamton. The Bearcats made it interesting by winning six of their last seven, but the Great Danes won their last game and hung on for the championship. Five other teams finished within two games of each other. In the conference tournament, the Great Danes made it clear who was the best team in the America East, winning their three games by an average of 13 points. As a #16 seed in the Big Dance, Albany gave Connecticut a tough game, leading the Huskies by 12 points with just over 11 minutes remaining before UConn showed Albany was the top dog was. Look for the Great Danes to be a top contender once again in what should be a good season at the top for the America East.

Favorites: With no team clearly head-and-shoulders above everyone else, the defending champion, Albany looks to be the team to beat heading into the season. The Great Danes return the conference Player of the Year in guard Jamar Wilson. He is one of the best all-around point guards in the country, contributing in all facets of the game. He is nearly unstoppable on offense when he's driving to the basket. Joining him in the backcourt are returnees Jon Iati and transfer Carl Ross, who is expected to make an immediate impact. Up front, Albany returns a very good forward combo in all-conference candidate Brent Wilson and Brian Lillis. Wilson provides good balance on the inside. Brett Gifford could step into the starting lineup down low. While they may not return to their Taylor Coppenrath/T.J. Sorrentine days, Vermont has enough talent and depth to make a run at the league title. The Catamounts, who return all five starters, are led by Rookie of the Year Mike Trimboli. The 6-1 point guard is a very good passer who is also a solid scorer. If he cuts down on his turnovers, he could be a star. Kyle Cieplicki is a nice complement to Trimboli in the backcourt. Vermont returns arguably the best frontcourt in the conference. Martin Klimes is an all-conference big man who can score very well and is a solid rebounder. 6-11 Chris Holm is one of the top rebounders in the league, while Corey McIntosh is a decent role player.

Contenders: After a disappointing season last year, Maine is ready to bounce back. The Black Bears bring back four starters, but the main reason for optimism is the return of all-conference guard Kevin Reed, who redshirted last season due to a stress fracture in his foot. Reed is an excellent scorer who is also an outstanding rebounder for his position. Joining him in the backcourt will be Jon Sheets and Rashard Turner. Turner is the team's lone double-figure scorer from a season ago. Up front, Philipe Tchekane Bofia leads the way. He is a solid scorer and rebounder who made the all-rookie team last season. Olli Ahvenniemi is one of the top rebounders and shot-blockers in the conference. With the return of all five starters, New Hampshire is a team that has a chance to make some real noise this season. They are led by Player of the Year candidate Blagoj Janev, a 6-8 forward who is very difficult to stop because of his offensive versatility. Matt Christensen is a very nice sidekick to Janev at forward, while Jamaal Caterina will play down low. In the backcourt, Jermaine Anderson will run the show. He was second in the country in free-throw percentage last season and is a good leader. Tyrece Gibbs provides solid production on the wing.

Sleepers: Binghamton, after finishing second in the America East last year, looks like it will take a step back from contention towards the middle of the pack this season. However, the Bearcats return one of the top backcourts in the conference in point guard Mike Gordon and two-guard Troy Hailey. Gordon was second in the conference last season in assists and steals, and his point production should go up this year with the loss of their top two scorers. Hailey is the team's leading returning scorer. Ian Milne and Duane James will form a solid forward tandem up front. However, Binghamton needs a quality big man to anchor the low post. Boston University had a disappointing season last year, as they saw their streak of four consecutive postseason appearances snapped. Moreover, one of their reasons for optimism this season, second-leading scorer Corey Hassan, transferred to Sacred Heart in the offseason. The cupboard is not entirely bare, though. Diminutive guard Brian Mason and 6-5 Matt Wolff will form a solid backcourt. Mason is the team's second-leading returning scorer, while Wolff is coming off of a redshirt season. Omari Peterkin and Ben Coblyn will man the blocks for the Terriers. Both are burly big men who will take up a lot of space in the paint. Ibrahim Konate brings even more size to the fold in the frontcourt. Stony Brook finished three games worse than any other team in the conference last season, but should improve drastically this year. The Seawolves return all-conference candidate Mitchell Beauford, one of the top scoring guards in the league. Tre Cunnigham is a solid player in the backcourt, as well. Up front, Mike Popoko is expected to increase his production after a decent campaign a seaso ago, while Stephane Bakinde is another returning starter. The biggest reason for optimism, though, is the welcoming of one of the top recruiting classes in the mid-major world. The Seawolves welcome six new recruits, as well as George Washington transfer Ricky Lucas, who could develop into a big-time player in the America East.

Rounding Out the Pack: Maryland-Baltimore County finished 8th in the conference last season, and could reach a similar fate this year. However, they do have some solid players returning and could win a few games here and there. The Retrievers have one of the top backcourts in the conference in point guard Chris Pugh and former sixth man Brian Hodges. Pugh led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, while Hodges averaged almost 13 points per game last season off the bench. Jay Greene is another solid player on the perimeter. Mike Housman returns to anchor the frontcourt, while Chris Timba or one of the newcomers is going to have to step to provide UMBC with interior scoring. Hartford faces the most daunting challenge in the conference: replacing Kenny Adeleke, who led the America East in scoring and rebounding and was one of the most statistically impressive players in all of college basketball. Forwards Bo Taylor--a candidate for a breakout season--and Alex Zimnickas will step into the starting lineup after coming off the bench last season, while 6-11 freshman Vincent Aldevinge could make an immediate impact. Rich Baker and Chris Cole return as the starting backcourt again. The Hawks need scoring help immediately from their recruiting class.

Prediction: The top of the conference is going to be very tight, and no team outside the top four looks like it will challenge for the league title. However, any one of those four contenders has a chance to win the America East. Heading into the season, Albany looks like the best option. They return Jamar Wilson, the most unstoppable player in the conference, as well as Brent Wilson, giving the Great Danes an excellent inside-outside combo. Vermont will give them a run, but expect Albany to represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament again this season.

Player of the Year: Jamar Wilson, PG, Albany

All-Conference Team:
G- Jamar Wilson, Albany
G- Mike Trimboli, Vermont
G- Kevin Reed, Maine
F- Blagoj Janev, New Hampshire
F- Martin Klimes, Vermont

Second Team:
G- Mitchell Beauford, Stony Brook
G- Mike Gordon, Binghamton
G- Brian Hodges, Maryland-Baltimore County
F- Brent Wilson, Albany
F- Phillippe Tchekane Bofia, Maine

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